Pac 12


#23 Oregon Ducks





HEAD COACH: Mark Helfrich, 33-8 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Lubick | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brady Hoke

Oregon’s streak of seven consecutive double-digit win seasons ended in 2015. However, the Ducks weren’t too far off their usual tally, as coach Mark Helfrich’s team finished 9-4 and suffered three of the four losses by a touchdown or less. As the focus shifts to 2016, Oregon has work to do in order to catch Stanford and Washington in the Pac-12 North this year. The Ducks are hoping a FCS graduate transfer (Dakota Prukop) is the right answer at quarterback, while the defense expects to take a step forward under new coordinator Brady Hoke. There’s plenty of talent in the program, and Oregon catches Stanford and Washington in Autzen Stadium this year. The development of Prukop and improvement on defense will determine just how high Helfrich’s Ducks fly in the North in 2016.

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Previewing Oregon’s Offense

For the second straight season, the Ducks will rely on an FCS graduate transfer at quarterback, this time Montana State All-American Dakota Prukop. He doesn’t have the same magic as a playmaker through the air as predecessor Vernon Adams, but at the FCS level Prukop rushed for 1,763 yards and 24 touchdowns, a dynamic Adams didn’t provide. Coaches also hope they’ve re-established a developmental pipeline that broke down the last two years. Both 2015 recruit Travis Jonsen and 2016 signee Terry Wilson showed promise in spring drills, getting reps ahead of returning veterans Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie.

Running back Royce Freeman deserves to be mentioned with the rest of college football’s outstanding junior running backs such as Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook. Freeman has a shot at surpassing 5,000 yards for his career this season.

The receiving corps lost Bralon Addison to the draft, but junior Charles Nelson is probably even more dynamic, and the plan is for him to play offense full-time after starting at safety late in 2015. Darren Carrington is another big-time playmaker, and tight end Pharaoh Brown looks ready to return from a devastating knee injury suffered in 2014.

The offensive line will rebuild around senior guard Cameron Hunt and junior tackle Tyrell Crosby, who moved to the left side in the spring. The Ducks signed a graduate transfer, Zac Morgan of Dayton, to compete at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Jake Hanson is a promising young center.

Previewing Oregon’s Defense 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Gone is the 3-4, two-gap defense Oregon has played since 2009. New coordinator Brady Hoke installed a 4-3, one-gap package, and the predominant word in the spring was “aggressive.”

“We will attack,” senior defensive end T.J. Daniel says. “We’ve got one-gap responsibility, and we’re gonna go fast.”

The Ducks don’t appear to have another Arik Armstead or DeForest Buckner up front, but junior Henry Mondeaux has a relentless motor and can play tackle or end. Hoke was hired to replace Don Pellum, who was reassigned to his previous role focusing on linebackers. The unit slipped during his two years splitting time as coordinator, and he’ll try to get the linebackers on track with a boost from former junior college teammates A.J. Hotchkins and Jonah Moi.

The secondary returns essentially intact, a good news/bad news proposition after allowing more than 300 passing yards per game last season. Cornerback Arrion Springs and safety Tyree Robinson are looking to prove themselves as reliable veterans, and sophomore Fotu Leiato provides an intimidating presence at strong safety in Hoke’s new scheme.

Converted receiver Malik Lovette is a breakout candidate.

Previewing Oregon’s Specialists

A year after improbably winning the placekicking job as a walk-on true freshman, Aidan Schneider earned first-team all-Pac-12 honors in 2015 — and a scholarship. He doesn’t have a huge leg, but Schneider was 22-of-24 on field goals as a sophomore, and made all 67 of his extra-point attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler, another guy who joined the Ducks as a walk-on, hasn’t been as consistent the last two years. Among the returners, Nelson could be the top option on both kicks and punts.

Final Analysis 

The Ducks missed Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu last season more than they even imagined. They need Prukop to make as seamless a transition as Adams did, and for Hoke to quickly solidify a defense that ranked among the nation’s worst in 2015. “We just needed a new direction,” head coach Mark Helfrich said upon hiring Hoke. Entering 2016, just which direction Oregon’s program is headed was very much unclear.

The Debate

Is Dakota Prukop one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12?

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#22 USC Trojans





HEAD COACH: Clay Helton, 6-4 (1+ year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tee Martin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Clancy Pendergast

USC is one of college football's most intriguing teams to watch in 2016. New coach Clay Helton takes over on a full-time basis, and his first year at the helm features one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Trojans open against defending national champion Alabama, play at Stanford, Utah, Washington and UCLA and match up against Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State at home. As if that wasn’t enough for Helton, USC has to break in a new quarterback and is thin on proven options on the defensive line. The Trojans aren’t hurting for talent. However, big question marks remain in Helton’s first year. 

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Previewing USC’s Offense 

Max Browne’s introduction to the pressures of big-time college football will come soon enough. USC’s junior quarterback is expected to make his first start in the season opener against defending National Champion Alabama in Dallas. Browne, taking over for three-year starter Cody Kessler, finally gets his chance four years after being named the National High School Player of the Year. Much of the success or failure of the offense will rest on his strong right arm. Fortunately for Browne and coach Clay Helton, starting his first full-time season on the job, the rest of the offense is experienced and deep. Senior Justin Davis (902 yards, 5.3 average) and sophomore Ronald Jones (987 yards, 6.5 average) form one of the country’s top tailback combinations.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (89 receptions for 1,454 yards and 10 TDs) is an All-America candidate at wide receiver, and the entire offensive line returns intact, led by All-Pac-12 tackle Zach Banner. Helton has stressed the need for the Trojans to return to a more physical style of play, reiterating how he longs to lock up games in the fourth quarter with a bruising running attack. But he also wants to utilize the outstanding athleticism of kids such as Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson, the star cornerback who is a big play waiting to happen as a part-time wide receiver.

Previewing USC’s Defense

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast returns to USC, where he was last seen molding a terrific defense in 2013. Replicating that feat this year might be difficult, especially with a defensive line that is alarmingly raw. There are no returning starters up front, and Kenny Bigelow, the nose tackle who was penciled in as the new leader of the group, went down for the season with a knee injury in spring practice. Not that the Trojans are lacking in large bodies with considerable potential. Promising linemen Noah Jefferson and Rasheem Green were in the rotation a year ago. And Porter Gustin, the top defensive end/outside linebacker in Pendergast’s 5-2 alignment, is quick and aggressive.

Cameron Smith, the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, is expected to come back strong after a late-season knee injury at one inside linebacker spot, with sophomore Osa Masina the likely starter at the other inside position, although he was pushed hard by Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell in the spring.

The secondary should be a strength, with Jackson and sophomore Iman Marshall forming a premier pair at cornerback. The depth at safety was accentuated in the spring when returning starters Chris Hawkins and John Plattenburg were battling to keep their jobs among a bevy of talented candidates that include Marvell Tell III and Leon McQuay III.

Previewing USC’s Specialists 

The head coach and quarterback won’t be the only new things at the start of this season. Both kickers will be newcomers as well. Lefty Matt Boermeester takes over as the full-time placekicker, while sophomore Chris Tilbey, whose only experience has been with Australian Rules Football, is the likely new punter. At least senior Zach Smith returns for his fourth year as an excellent snapper. Jackson is a one-man kick returning unit.

Final Analysis

There wouldn’t be so much concern about a new quarterback and an inexperienced defensive line if it weren’t for a schedule that ranks among the toughest in the country. Helton, refreshingly humble compared to his recent predecessors, can’t stop gushing about how fortunate he is to have this job. The talent he has, especially at running back, up front on offense and in the defensive secondary, is good enough to contend for a Pac-12 title. But if he can’t go 9–3 or at least 8–4 with this group, he might not feel so lucky anymore.   

The Debate

Where does Clay Helton rank among new coach hires for 2016?

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